When you hear the phrase ‘transformation change’, or ‘strategic initiative’, does your heart sink or soar? When a colleague puts forward a suggestion for changing the status quo do you respond with a sceptical ‘but…’ or an enthusiastic ‘tell me more’? When new ideas emerge do you tend to talk them down, or talk them up?
The truth is that we all respond differently to change and our personality preferences and life experiences may incline us towards being risk averse, or conversely, wildly reckless, hopefully though, most of us will fall somewhere in between.
Change is scary
If we are honest most of us will admit that change can be scary. It can feel like a leap into the unknown and how we feel is betrayed in our facial expressions, vocal tone and body language. This can lead others to see us as change advocates, or change assassins. Also, our emotional reaction to change can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, ‘whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you‘re right’ said Henry Ford – and he was right. Our mindset can be the difference between success and failure, between thinking and achieving, between taking others with us, or leaving them behind.
When leading change we need to excite others, building a momentum that ensures change is delivered despite the inevitable obstacles and challenges we will encounter along the way. To do this successfully we need to engender hope and optimism in our own mindset and in the mindset of those we lead. This is because hope and optimism are the drivers that see us through doubts and uncertainties, inspiring us to unlock the opportunities that change can bring.
Optimism and Resilience
Positive emotions such as optimism have been found to promote adaptability and contribute to resilience. In times of adversity they can counter negative emotions, protect health, increase effectiveness, enhance thought processes and improve decision making. These benefits enable us to adjust more easily to new situations. In contrast negative emotions such as fear, anger, worry and anxiety can lead to defensive or hostile behaviour, limiting our ability to engage with new ideas. By being optimistic, we expand our ability to take in more information, making us more resilient by enabling us to exert more control over aspects of the change, rather than wallowing in feelings of helplessness.
Optimism and Leadership
What happens if we are leading change yet sceptical, cynical or even scathing of change? Science shows that our emotions are contagious. So, if we are struggling with the change ourselves we can also have a negative impact on those we are supposed to be leading through the change. Would you rather be led into the unknown by someone who engenders a mindset of hope and optimism, or someone who appears to be steeped in a cloud of gloom, despair and pessimism? A negative leader not only discourages others but this affects performance and can impact the health of those they lead by promoting worry, stress and anxiety.
My own belief is that leaders have a responsibility to embody a mindset of hope and optimism that encourages people to get excited about possibilities and enable the best solutions to emerge. If you cannot do this, then some soul searching may be needed as to whether this is a change you should lead.
Optimism vs Realism
Let me be clear, optimism is not a ‘Pollyanna’ state where we bury our head in the sand and don’t admit to challenges or reality. Rather it is a state where we recognise that the steps we take and the effort we invest in change can bring about success. It is a belief that we can overcome challenges by pooling our resources and calling on our past successes and experience. It is the ability get excited and energised by new possibilities and enjoy the journey of discovery. It is about a growth mindset where we say we don’t know the answer ‘yet’ but we know that if apply ourselves we can crack the problem. The word ‘yet’ opens us up to the potential for growth through endeavour and exploration, rather than seeing problems as insurmountable. In other words, we believe we have the willpower to deliver and the way-power to succeed.
Now I know some people at this point may be saying, ‘but if the change is a bad thing, it takes leadership to stand up and say so’, and you are right. However, if the business strategy is to move in a direction that is good for the business but goes against your own beliefs, values, aspirations and comfort zone, it is as well to recognise that if you are unable to reconcile your feelings then, unless you step aside, you may become the problem rather than the solution.
Can I assess my optimism?
Yes you can! The Change Efficacy Questionnaire assesses your change mindset capability by looking at 6 resource areas which our research identified as fundamental to successfully navigating change and enhancing coping during times of extreme uncertainty. These resources are, purposefulness, openness, resilience, efficacy, optimism and support.
As well as being free to use, you get a downloadable report with questions for reflection and ideas for improving your capability in each of these areas. It was developed for use in an organisational setting and is versatile enough to be used by individuals, groups, coaches, facilitators, change managers, project managers, HR and well-being specialists to name but a few. You can also download ideas on how to use the CEQ in individual and group settings and discover more about ‘The Science Behind the CEQ’.
Bonanno, G.A., (2008). Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events? Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, Vol S. (1), p101-113
Boyatzis, R.E. (2006) The ideal self as the driver of intentional change. Journal of Management Development. 25(7), 624-642.
Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd
Fredrickson, B.L. & Cohn, M.A., (2008) Positive Emotions, Ch. 48., p777-796, in Lewis, M..; Haviland-Jones, J.M. & Barratt, L.F. (2008) Handbook of Emotions. New York: The Guildford Press
Fredrickson, B.L., (2009), Positivity, London: OneWorld Publications
Lopez,S.J.(2013). Making Hope Happen: Create the future you want for yourself and others. New York: Atria Paperback.
Luthans, F.,Youssef-Morgan, C.M. & Avolio, B.J. (2015).Psychological Capital and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ong, A.D., Bergeman, C.S. & Chow, Sy-Miin, (2010), Positive emotions as a basic building block of resilience in adulthood. in Reich, J.W., Zautra, A.J. & Hall, J.S. (Eds), (2010 ) Handbook of Adult Resilience, New York: Guildford Press.
Reichard, R.J., Avey,J.B., Lopez, S. & Dollwet, M. (2013). Having the will and finding the way: a review and meta-analysis of hope at work. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(4),292-304.
Sy, T., Cote, S, Saavedra, R. (2005) The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader's Mood on the Mood of Group Members, Group Affective Tone, and Group Processes. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 90(2), Mar, 2005. pp. 295-305.